Recently, I attended a conference at which the issue of student motivation was a major theme in the keynote and in a few breakout sessions. In at least two discussions, it was declared (by the session speaker) that the most important job of the teacher is to motivate students. While I certainly agree that motivation, especially internal motivation, plays a major role in the work students produce and the effort given to learning lessons, I am not sure the “primary” role of the teacher is to motivate. Let me explain.
I think the most important role of a teacher is – drum roll, please – …TO TEACH. Of course, finding ways to motivate students to do their best will help the teaching and learning process, but teachers are not professional motivators. Here’s why. In my playing days, I had some outstanding coaches who taught me plenty about how to play baseball better who were not in the least bit great motivators. On the other hand, I have observed classes in which the students are highly energized and motivated to be in the teacher’s presence – but the actual lessons left something to be desired.
There is also an idea that students are “unmotivated” because the “what” being taught does not inspire them to achieve great results. This implies that teaching is limited to the “what”. That is not true. Good teaching also involved the how, where, when, and why of a topic.
In the end, teachers teach. If they do it well the teaching is engaging and invites students to be active participants in the lesson. The very act of involvement requires a degree of motivation because without it, students are left to passively accept the “what” of a lesson. Motivation is important, but is more likely to exist in the form of lessons designed for active student engagement than in teachers delivering pep talks. After all, even the greatest motivational speech given before a football game is forgotten by the players once the ball is kicked off to start the game.